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Interviewers: When Question Immunity is Built, Go Negative Young Grasshopper...

Let's face it - it's an ugly world out there when it comes to interviewing.  While companies don't spend enough on interviewer training (training HR pros and hiring managers to become more effective at interviewing), the reality is that companies DO train a good bit on how to interview.  Plus, there's lots of self help resources out there to help the hiring manager who doesn't work for a company that provides that training.

It's not enough. It's still a hard knock life out there. Way too many managers whose go-to line is "what 24-B would you say your strengths are".  Cue the candidate responding, "I've been told I work too hard and want to win too bad".


Answer the following question - who's more motivated to do well in an interview: the candidate or the hiring manager, especially in a down economy?

Right - the candidate.  So much so that the candidate is much more likely to study to beat the game that is interviewing.  More from John Zappe at ERE:

"“Interviewers haven’t changed their techniques,” says the CEO of Hire Authority, a recruiter training firm. “But the job seekers have. They’ve been studying. Applicants have beefed up their ability to really look good.”

It’s her feeling that over the last couple of years, as recruiter ranks have been thinned by the recession, those left behind have had neither the time nor often the budget to improve their interviewing skills. On the other hand, job seekers, with nothing but time, have gotten better.

“There are so many sources catering to these hungry job seekers looking for a paycheck that they don’t have to look very hard for help,” says Quinn. As a point of illustration, Quinn told me that several months ago she came across a tweet pointing to a collection of videos of recruiters using behavioral interviewing techniques with a candidate. The candidate’s responses, she says, “were spot-on.”

The downside to that reality?  Even if you are a solid interviewer, it's harder to get the most valuable insights from a candidate who has drilled on the most common 20 behavioral interviewing questions.  That puts you in a tough spot.

That's why you should do more of one interviewing technique that's not commonly used - you should go negative.

Going negative is pretty simple.  You ask your standard behavioral interviewing question ("Tell me about a time where you had to turnaround a project in a very short timeframe"), then work through the details of what that candidate did to generate the result in question (Note: The reason many HR pros and hiring managers are weak behavioral interviewers is due to the fact that once they ask for a scenario, they don't probe enough for the details of what and why the candidate did what he did).  Once you're satisfied that you've mined all you can, you go negative by asking the following:

"Thanks for walking me through that Jim.  Now tell me about a time you had to turn a project around in a short time frame and it went bad".

Boom.  I'm no longer interested in your brag book and your prep work for this interview.  I want to know about when it all went to hell.   

And I'm not letting you off the hook, because you and I both know it's gone to hell at times, and I want you to tell me about it.  The advantage in this technique is that in the big scheme of interview prep for candidates, no one preps for the negative interview question.  Keep in mind, you can still win with this question as a candidate - if you're insightful about what happened, how you could have done things differently and are willing to compare and contrast with the positive outcome.  That's what I'm looking for with the negative question.

If you interview for a living, you need to go negative.  Go ahead, it's OK - you don't have to be nice all the time...



Couldn't agree more. I've been on a world tour training our HR and hiring managers on behavioral interviewing and I stress the negative questions as absolutely necessary.

That being said, I must say I disagree with Quinn in that the good interviewers have not been left behind and it is difficult to offer canned responses to behavioral questions if you are asking the right questions and probing for details. A good interviewer will see through the candidates that watched a few videos online and be able to get to the meat.


Hmmm...I'm not sure about this. "Tell me about a project that went bad" seems like the new "What are your three weaknesses?" You don't agree?

"Hmmm...A time a project went bad... Well, I was tasked with deploying a new line of socks by June 1. It was a tight deadline, and there was a cotton-polly blend shortage (luckily I had been growing cotton in my backyard for just such an occasion). It was amazingly hard to get everything done. There were late nights, I had to calm frazzled employees - really, everything was stacked against us. But we got it done...until there was a hurricane and the shipment was stuck at sea! I did everything I could - I even got the Coast Guard to helicopter me out to sea and lower me over the ship. I brought each sock up off the boat by hand. But alas - we didn't make it back until June 2..."

New way to phrase the same BS.

When I was looking for I job, I prepared for this question (and that was a while ago). As a job seeker, I always felt that my most successful interviews were when the interviewer just took the time to try to get to know me for a little while and incorporated these types of questions into conversation, rather than going down a three sheet long list of questions. I felt like I was more honest and open with them, and I felt like we each walked away with a better understanding of what the other person was looking for.

Michael Haberman, SPHR

The key is follow up, follow up, follow up. You can only practice so many answers. Besides, I don't really think it is that easy to study for behavioral interview questions, especially not the negative ones.


I feel that what you are discussing is how to make a flawed process more efficent, but not more effective.

If you want candidates to be open and objective about their skills and experience then you need to make sure that your clients have realistic expectations about what they want. Otherwise you just perpetuate the game where the client says "I want you to hire the perfect employee even though I know that there is no such thing" and the candidate says "you want the perfect empoyee? Then I'll pretend for the hiring process to be the perfect employee even though you know and I know that it isn't true"

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